Deepening democracy in transitional Tunisia: a new chapter for local governance

The Tunisian transitional process moved forward in May 2018 with the organisation of the country’s first democratic local elections since Ben Ali was ousted. Despite multiple challenges, this key step launches an ambitious decentralisation process and could usher in a new era of local policy-making that addresses the country’s striking regional disparities.

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    Tunisia’s first democratic local elections on 6 May marked a major step in the sole surviving democratic transition among the Arab Spring countries to date. After a difficult winter that witnessed protests against public spending cuts, the local elections have created a new momentum for Tunisia’s fragile transition by shifting power beyond the capital to the country’s 350 municipalities. The local elections launched a decentralisation process that represents the biggest wave of legal and administrative reforms in Tunisia since independence in 1956. These reforms, mandated by the new Constitution adopted in 2014, have two key objectives: deepening democracy and promoting local development to address the gaping regional inequalities that lay at the heart of the 2011 revolution. A new Local Authorities Code adopted in April transfers powers to elected local and regional councils that will be expected to improve local services, drive local development and better represent and engage citizens.

    To date, the Arab world remains the most centralised region globally in terms of the powers and resources of local authorities, which makes Tunisia’s experiment with decentralisation particularly important to observe for policymakers in the North and South. This article examines the background to Tunisia’s decentralisation process, the implementation challenges it is likely to face, and the new opportunities it opens up. Decentralisation is no easy feat in any context, much less so in the midst of a complex democratic transition, significant economic challenges, and in a volatile region.

    However, decentralisation also has the potential to generate new opportunities for Tunisia’s local development by empowering local authorities to develop new solutions to local challenges. For this to happen, there must be a genuine political will to decentralise, the necessary human and financial resources, and, crucially, accountability mechanisms to ensure that the new powers and resources at the local level are used properly.

    The birth of local politics

    The results of the 6 May 2018 local elections brought a few surprises but largely replicated the party political landscape at national level. The Ennahdha Party and Nidaa Tounes, the two leading parties in the national coalition government, maintained their top spots (28.6% and 20.8%, respectively), taking nearly half of all the votes between them. These two parties continue to occupy the political centre ground, with smaller parties trailing behind on less than 4% of the vote. However, the major surprise was the rise of independents. Cumulatively, independent lists captured 32.2% of the vote, capitalising on frustration with national politicians by offering an alternative discourse that focused more on local identity and concerns, and the credentials of individual candidates.

    The elections produced a whole new set of local representatives – 7,212 elected councillors to be precise – 47% of whom are women and 37% under the age of 35 (compared with an average of 25% women local councillors across Europe). This influx of new voices promises to reshape and open up politics to reflect hitherto under-represented groups and regions.

    Decentralisation: deepening democracy, driving development

    Democratic transitions are often rather centralised processes, where power is divided up and negotiated at the centre between political actors and across new institutions (parliament, presidency, constitutional institutions, etc.). This has been the case in Tunisia since 2011. However, decentralisation is now shifting the focus to dividing up power vertically moving it away from the centre towards the regions and municipalities. The new Constitution dedicates an entire chapter to administrative, political and fiscal decentralisation. Chapter Seven sets a framework for decentralisation that emphasises both democracy and development, and has a strong participatory spirit, requiring local government to “adopt mechanisms of participatory democracy and the principles of open governance to ensure broader participation by citizens and civil society…” (Article 134).

    Local development is a key priority for all Tunisians, particularly those in the marginalised interior regions. Major inequalities in infrastructure, services and economic opportunities divide the coastal and interior regions owing to decades of discriminatory economic policies. On the eve of the revolution, only 18% of public investment funds went to the interior regions compared with 82% to coastal areas. Today, 92% of all industry is located near Tunisia’s three largest cities on the coast Tunis, Sfax and Sousse – which together produce 85% of Tunisia’s GDP. Many Tunisians are pinning their hopes on decentralisation as the means to tackle these flagrant disparities.

    No shortage of implementation challenges

    There are political, technical and financial challenges to decentralisation processes in any context. Undertaking decentralisation in the midst of a democratic transition is even more of a daunting task. Tunisia’s authorities are likely to face three types of challenges in particular:

    The resource challenge

    Decades of centralised rule have left local authorities with a major shortage of financial resources. Municipalities received a mere 3.6% of the State budget in 2010. This compares with an average of 40.4% in OECD countries. In addition, central government has severely restricted local government’s powers to levy taxes, and those local taxes that are in place are seldom collected: the recovery rate for municipal taxes on households is a paltry 7-15%, according to experts.

    Local authorities also face a major shortage in human resourcesLess than 10% of municipal employees have a baccalaureate-level qualification or above and some municipalities have no technically qualified staff (engineers, architects, etc.). Policymakers report that when regional development funds for interior regions were quadrupled after the revolution, local and regional authorities were unable to deliver projects partly due to a lack of trained staff. Granting local authorities the power to recruit their own staff is a very delicate question that was sidestepped during the debate on the new Local Authorities Code. For now, central government has promised to transfer staff locally, but no details have been provided.

    The political challenge

    Tunisia’s central government institutions will need to be persuaded, pressured and cajoled into transferring their powers and resources to local government. In dozens of interviews conducted by the author, stakeholders from across the spectrum – public officials, members of parliament, local authorities, civil society activists – highlighted that the decentralisation process is being managed by a handful of government officials in a few select ministries in Tunis with little transparency. The new Local Authorities Code adopted in April 2018 was intended to implement constitutional principles on decentralisation but contains no details of what policy areas will actually be transferred to local authorities. It further grants local authorities few revenue-raising powers and avoids creating a local system of public service. The Ministry of Local Affairs has announced a 27-year decentralisation plan to address all these questions but few details have been revealed, and the plan has yet to be shared with Parliament. Greater transparency and a strong political will are needed to ensure that the decentralisation process does not become paralysed by institutional resistance and inertia.

    The communication challenge

    Local authorities face the huge challenge of building trust with the public after decades of authoritarian rule. It is telling that the revolution in 2010-11 was triggered by an incident between a street vendor and a municipal official after the vendor refused to pay a bribe. Local government is still viewed with suspicion as in local eyes it is seen as representing the Ben Ali regime.

    The newly elected local councils will need to bridge the vast gap between local authorities and residents. According to a 2014 World Bank survey, only 4% of households said that they had received any communication from their municipality in the past year and over 64% of households thought their councillors did not work to represent their interests. Given that the presumed benefits of decentralisation (e.g. greater responsiveness, better fit between policies and local needs) rely on communication between local authorities and citizens and downward accountability, improving communication is key.

    Tunisia’s dynamic civil society has played an important role in bridging this gap. Associations have organised training courses for local officials, public events to bring together officials and residents, and civic education campaigns for the public. This work will need to be expanded and intensified to help thousands of new councillors gain the skills they need to effectively represent and respond to their constituents’ needs, while educating the public on the powers and responsibilities of municipal councils so that they can be held accountable.


    Tunisia’s decentralisation process has the potential to address longstanding regional disparities and ineffective development policies that continue to plague the democratic transition. While the local elections were an important signal to both Tunisians and the outside world that Tunisia’s transition is moving forward, it is vital that new local councils are able to deliver what citizens want – better services, local development and tangible improvements in their quality of life.

    Doing this will require building the capacities and resources not only of municipal administrations and municipal councillors, but also the public and civil society to engage in a new model of democratic local governance that moves away from top-down centralised decision-making towards greater autonomy, transparency and direct accountability to citizens.

    Ironically, the decentralisation process has been extremely centralised in its approach so far, and has been dominated by a few decision-makers in Tunis. The central government’s 27-year decentralisation plan should be published, with wide consultation, in order to ensure that there is proper national debate on decentralisation and to avoid the plan becoming a cover for obstructing reforms and retaining central control.

    While the focus in the coming years will be on the newly elected municipal councils and how they perform, an eye must also be kept on Tunis and how the decentralisation process is being shaped at central level. Public pressure on decision-makers must be maintained to drive the decentralisation process forward and ensure that there is open debate among policymakers, civil society and the public about what kind of decentralisation Tunisia should be pursuing and how it should be carried out to best meet its twin aims of deepening democracy and strengthening local development.

    About the author
    Intissar Kherigi is a PhD student in Comparative Political Sociology at the Centre for International Relations at Sciences Po Paris. Her academic research focuses on policy-making processes and decentralisation reforms in post-Revolution Tunisia. She holds a Bachelor in Law from Cambridge University and a Masters in Human Rights from the London School of Economics. She has worked at the UK House of Lords, the United Nations Security Council in New York, and the European Parliament in Brussels.She is a member and co-founder of several Tunisian NGOs including Jasmine Foundation, a “think and do tank” in Tunisia specialising in citizen participation in decision-making and youth empowerment, and in the application of social science research to create innovative social solutions. 

    Read the full magazine issue

    North Africa, hope in troubled times – Volume 7, Issue 4 (Autumn 2018)
    06 November 2018
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